Wit: Who We Might Yet Become

Local Arts Reviews

Wit: Who We Might Yet Become

State Theater,

through June 10

Running Time: 1hr, 50 min

A chill in the air, a deathly chill, hangs in the auditorium of the State Theater, and a silence. The box of the stage contains a smaller box, a cube really, constructed of other stacked, colorless cubes, the perspective forced, allowing the impression of much more space, perhaps infinite, than might otherwise be distinguished. The cube is not empty, though. At the rear, parallel with the proscenium, is a wall constructed of still more cubes, all dimly, coldly lit, set off against this infinite cube. And not a sound can be heard except the murmur of the audience. The overall impression is disturbingly peaceful, and so noisily silent, as if pausing. You know that soon something will fill this empty space, something more than an entertainment. This stage is not set for entertainment only.

What the stage is set for is the State Theater Company's production of Wit, Margaret Edson's first play and one for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. Her story revolves around Dr. Vivian Bearing, a scholar of the religious poetry of John Donne. For decades, through Donne's poems, Bearing has taught classes of students about their relationship to the spiritual and eternal. But she is not loved well. She is knowledgeable, yes. Intelligent, without question. Respected, certainly. Feared -- oh yes. But not loved. A life without love -- well, can that be said to be a life at all?

It's heavy material, but director Michael Bloom's touch is light. Eventually the space, created by set designer Michael Raiford and lit coldly, yes, but occasionally warmly by lighting designer David Nancarrow, is filled with the noises of a hospital and the objects of the medical profession. The wheelchair. The examination table. One of those beds that looks so comfortable and yet so daunting, the extra equipment attached thereto telling a story that has nothing to do with a good night's sleep. As a group, they ensure that everything moves with well-oiled, institutional efficiency, quickly and easily rolling on and off the stage and through the surprising, well-hidden double doors on either side of the cube. With the skilled and experienced hands of a surgeon, Bloom guides us through Dr. Bearing's education in the truth of life, the action gliding easily from side to side to center and back again. He creates a series of primarily still pictures that move suddenly with the frenetic activity of a modern hospital then become still again for long spells. Quiet spells. So quiet. So lonely.

In the middle of it all, sometimes standing -- and just barely -- mostly lying down, is Megan Cole's Dr. Vivian Bearing. When we first see her, she wears the hallowed cap of her beloved Boston Red Sox (talk about death in life) and a hospital gown, and pulls one of those thin stands that holds the bags of fluid that keep her hydrated. She welcomes us to her world, but she doesn't quite let us in -- not yet. At the beginning, she holds us at arm's length, her intelligence obvious in her poise and her cultivated voice. She introduces us to those who treat her: Michael Costello's warm Dr. Kelekian, who informs her of her disease in technical language that belies his perfectly practiced bedside manner; Guy Roberts' young Jason, a doctoral fellow detached from his patients to the point of seeming careless and who, during a pelvic examination, provides one of the most chilling moments I've experienced in a theatre; and nurse Susie, played by Shannon Grounds, the only non-Equity actor among the four, who gives a simple and almost note-perfect performance of warmth, grace, and love. Each of these performances is striking, but none more so than Cole's. She never leaves the stage as we watch her change -- no, transform, stripping away layer after layer of well-constructed defenses until she stands naked before us, her humanity revealed. She makes us face our own mortality. She makes two hours feel like one.

I've heard a question asked often lately, not about Wit, although it certainly applies: Why do this? Do we really need this? A legitimate question, particularly as it applies to this play, which could be seen as just another story about someone dying of a dreadful disease. My response: Why do any play -- at all? Because it speaks to the people involved, no matter the subject. Because it helps us learn about ourselves. Because it illuminates the human spirit. And, like Wit particularly, because it makes us feel hopeful about who we are and might yet become.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Arts Reviews
All the Way
All the Way
In Zach Theatre's staging of this epic political drama about LBJ, the fight for civil rights feels particularly urgent

Robert Faires, May 1, 2015

Random Acts of Magic
Random Acts of Magic
The 2015 batch of Out of Ink 10-minute plays is a satisfying buffet of silliness and thoughtfulness

Elizabeth Cobbe, May 1, 2015

More by Barry Pineo
Arts Review
Guest by Courtesy
Etiquette takes a pratfall in this comic battle for control between cousins

Nov. 11, 2011

Arts Review
The B. Beaver Animation
The Rude Mechs' re-creation of the Mabou Mines work is necessary but strange

Nov. 4, 2011


Wit, Margaret Edson, State Theater Company, Michael Bloom, Michael Raiford, David Nancarrow, Megan Cole, Michael Costello, Guy Roberts, Shannon Grounds

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle